Friday, September 28, 2012

Pride or Power: Pick your Poison

When it comes to college football, nearly every team has an intrastate rivalry. For the last several seasons, the Michigan State University football program has experienced a remarkable transformation. A key marker of this change has been its win streak over rival University of Michigan. The Spartans have beaten the Wolverines four years straight. As a Michigan State alum and Spartan fan, each win has left me grinning ear to ear. Go Green! But this season has me worried, and it’s not because I think our streak against the Wolverines might end.
What bothers me is the climate of rivalry on the Spartan fans’ part. Recently, I’ve noted a mean-spiritedness among some of them. Not so much in the stands as on the streets. And on Facebook. Now I’m all for aggressive competition and I promote my allegiance to Sparty with an enthusiasm that often borders on fanatic. But there’s a difference between competitive digging at an opponent and kicking them when they’re down.
For years that’s what State fans had to endure from a few particularly arrogant Michigan fans. However, when the worm turned and the Wolverines started losing, the venom stopped. Recently it’s begun re-surfacing. Disappointingly, though I suppose not so surprisingly, it has been coming from the Spartans.
A few of weeks ago I read a report where a couple Spartan football players went on Twitter to ridicule and trash-talk Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson. The Spartan players were appropriately reprimanded by MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio, who said he expects his team to respect its rival even though it has every reason to brag, given its current four-game winning streak against the Wolverines.
Coach Dantonio deserves high praise and much respect. Through his leadership he has taken a football program I lovingly used to refer to as, ‘the best .500 college football team in America,’ and turned it into a Big Ten title contender, year end and year out. Less than a decade ago the Spartans were forced to endure an average gridiron program but always had the potential to knock off one or two highly regarded teams a year. Now they’re consistent winners. Fans have come to expect it.
While Dantonio’s coaching grit and daring has led the charge to team success, there was an incident that some say sparked the program’s turnaround. It came in 2007 in the form of rather notable comments by Mike Hart, a former Wolverine football standout and NFL player turned Assistant Coach/Running backs for Eastern Michigan University. During a TV post game interview, Hart jokingly referred to Michigan State as being U of M’s ‘Little Brother’.
The comment led to what some now refer to as The Curse of Mike Hart, because the Wolverines have not beaten Michigan State since. For many Spartan fans, coaches and the team, Hart’s statement was a very public slap in the face. Ironically, Hart’s arrogance in that moment served as the fuel that has fired the Spartans to competitive prominence.
Years ago, in response to Mike Hart’s ‘little brother’ comments, Coach Dantonio stated, “Pride comes before the fall.” The interesting thing is that we’ve all seen this scenario play out time and again – on the playing field and possibly in our own lives: one person or group is down and ridiculed, then, when having a turn at being on top assumes the same mean posture.
What causes some downtrodden people, when they get their turn at having power, to get so full of themselves that they go off the deep end and drown in their own prideful words or actions? Is it simply human nature or something else? More to the point, how can we keep it from happening to us?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Winning the battle but losing the war

Ambitious Raleigh, North Carolina farmers

A few weeks ago was the 2012 Urban & Small Farms conference in Milwaukee. The confab is an annual meeting that provides education and networking opportunities to people interested in the food movement. Several ‘foodies’ from our community attended and like most participants, we gained news and knowledge of what the rest of the country is doing, as well as ideas for strengthening food-related work here in town. For me, the most energetic moment of the conference was also the most disturbing.
It came following a quite interesting presentation by an organic food manufacturer. As you might expect, the panelists enthusiastically promoted information about the benefits of eating ‘organic’ foods. At the same time, they also passionately railed against genetically manufactured organisms (GMOs), which according to panelists are unhealthy and even dangerous.
While the explanation of what GMOs are is too complex to go into in this space (and I’m no food scientist), what happened during the Q&A session after the presentation is what really caught my attention. It also left a bunch of people in the room on the thorny side of uncomfortable.
Curious goat from a Milwaukee urban farm
When it was his turn, a conference-goer took the Q&A mic and acknowledged the seriousness of the GMO issue. Then he proceeded to scold the presenters for what he described as scare tactics in their opposition of GMOs and support for their own company’s position on organic foods. The person speaking was quite emotional and used more than one, uh, colorful metaphor.
What made this man’s impassioned tirade so relevant was that he wasn’t arguing for or against the GMO approach to growing food. Instead, he was complaining that the presentation was not forwarding the conversation on how people and organizations can work together on both sides of the issue to help solve our nation’s unhealthy food system. He also reminded the room there also are legitimate issues related to the organic-only approach.
As I listened, the nature of the person’s comments reminded me of other topics in which ‘either/or’ thinking is the preferred approach to problem solving. Case in point, the upcoming political elections. Negative attack ads are rampant. On all sides. The same can be said of the way folks debate the climate change issue. Local examples include how our teachers are held up as scapegoats for many of our education woes. On a less relevant level is the way we persecute, say, a quarterback for not putting the ball on the hands of his receivers every time.
These days it seems, during conflicts or when evaluating problems, too much energy is centered on each side wanting to be right, and/or proving the other person, agency or whatever wrong. Contrast this with working together to address a problem. For instance, maybe the quarterback’s receivers could run slightly different routes and blockers could give the QB more time so he won’t be in as much of a hurry to throw. In other words, work together to spread the responsibility across all team members.
Urban farm poultry: they seemed happy
 In the case of the foodie at the conference, his attack wasn’t against the organic food company’s approach or in favor of big corporations engaged in GMO research manufacturing. It was a plea to cease the either/or declarations in favor of possible both/and solutions. Maybe that guy is naive in believing the whole GMO/organic debate can be resolved in a manner that doesn’t employ doom and gloom scare tactics. Then again, I personally believe listening for understanding and then working together as a team toward solutions is exactly what we need to create meaningful change in today’s society.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Here Comes the Judge(s)

The famous line in one of the 1980s “Dirty Harry” movie goes, “Opinions are like pie-holes; everybody has one,” or something like that. But what happens when people who have a large public following push what they think and say about a topic as if it’s more important than the topic itself, and do it in demeaning ways? That’s seems to be the growing slant during television sporting events, political news shows and other programming. It’s a poor commentary (excuse the pun) that has led to deep-seated problems, especially among our youth.
This whole, “I’m on TV, so what I’m saying is more important than what you’re thinking” mentality is poisoning popular culture. A good deal of it occurs among celebrity judges on reality shows, the kind where ‘ordinary people’ compete in singing, dancing, cooking and other skills-based activities. TV and radio sports commentators are also drifting beyond providing useful analysis, information or personal asides and into poisonous second guessing.
There’s mean-spiritedness going on; it is of a kind the public seems to accept. It’s one thing to describe the action and break it down for folks to better understand what’s happening during competitions. It’s quite another to lambast competitors for their missteps and split second decision-making. This brand of armchair quarterbacking used to be confined to game day tailgates or La-Z-Boy couch potatoes ranting to their beer-drinking buddies. Now we’re forced to endure, with growing regularity, commentators and reality show judges popping off about players and participants like there’s no tomorrow. Oh yeah, it’s on Facebook too but I digress…
I'm all for learning and entertainment. The problem for me is that I really am not interested in other people always telling me what I should be thinking. Everyone has opinions and that's well and good. American Idol, America's Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars. I'd like to believe most fans watch these shows to celebrate emerging talent. Sadly, I've overheard water cooler commentary bitterly ridiculing the previous night's contestants with all the immaturity normally reserved for troubled middle school bus passengers.
However, I must be in the minority about my dislike of all the, “Here’s what the contestant/player/coach/referee did wrong and why,” pontificating. That’s because the networks conduct consumer research and no doubt have data which support that the average viewer wants to be told what’s happening with cynical opinions stated like fact.
To my mind, there’s a declining beauty in games and competitions. Commentators and judges show no mercy for imperfection and seem to relish pointing out the shortcomings of participants. It’s like they’re judging the performance of robots and blaming them for acting too much like human beings. The more venom the better it seems, and it’s been seeping into our own personal commentary about each other.
This mass media habit of building up and then tearing down people has infected communities in ways that hold far-reaching effects. To my mind, it’s time to turn sports and other forms of competition toward more positive footing, on which the search for excellence conspires to bring out the best in who we can be rather than excessively seek out the worst.
Nobody’s suggesting we ignore the mistakes, missteps and other nuances that make up healthy competition. What I do believe is that our over analysis of each play and player dehumanizes the participants. What does that say about how we might be treating each other in our daily lives? More to the point, how does that translate into how we feel about ourselves?
Then we wonder where the whole bullying mentality in schools and at work comes from.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Judging Women by their Looks is Limiting

Quick: what’s the first thing you think when you see a man in a business suit walking downtown? ‘What’s he do for a living?’ ‘Where’s he going?’ ‘Is he capable?’ Now, what’s the first thing you think if it’s a woman? If you’re like most people, and I unfortunately count myself among them sometimes, the initial thought tends to be centered on her looks.
In general, if you believe that to compliment a woman on her beauty is, well, a compliment, you’d probably be right. But what happens if that’s the first thing you always consider when you see a woman? Such a characterization is limiting. I can’t tell you how many times when conducting business I’ve stood before a female (doctor, police officer, politician, etc.) and my initial thought was of how she looks. It’s not just business situations either. For instance, I’ve done it regarding female athletes where performance should be the only thing that matters. Yet time and again it wasn’t. World’s fastest woman? ‘Check out that body.’ Gold medal in gymnastics? ‘She’d look better if she wore her hair different.’ Lot’s of wrong thinking going on.
When I was younger, it never crossed my mind that I was reducing fully formed human beings to a single characteristic – perhaps the least important quality, in terms of whatever interaction I was engaged in. Some say that’s just the way it is; men are wired like that. It’s nature’s way of ensuring continuation of the species. On some level that’s true. But it’s also letting a lot of men off the hook around what I’ve come to understand is some real pigeon-holing stuff.
Single-minded males aren’t the only ones to perpetrate the ‘beauty-first’ mantra. I’ve observed this one-dimensional projection amongst women too. More than once I’ve overheard comments about how well or poorly another woman looks or is ‘put together’.
While it may indeed be supportive to remark favorably about a woman’s appearance, to her face or otherwise, I dare say it also can be depreciating. In some cases, although unintentional, it borders on disrespect. I’m not even referring to cat-calls by men or catty comments by women. I contend that to consistently place a woman’s appearance as her first and single most important attribute is to denigrate all the other positive aspects she brings to the table. Her skills, strength, knowledge, compassion, humor, endurance, athleticism are all devalued.
It’s natural for sighted people to use our visual senses as part of an initial observation of a woman (or man for that matter). But I wonder if, over time, that regard translates into diminished judgments and leads to unfair determinations about a woman’s character, intelligence or capacity to contribute?
To a significant degree, media is to blame for this limiting assessment of females in our culture. How women are portrayed and defined (stereotypically relying on their looks to achieve success) has conditioned us all to elevate beauty in a way that lowers expectations for women. And in the end, unless you’re in a swimsuit pageant or some other looks-based vocation, physical appearance shouldn’t really matter all that much.
Last month, Woman’s Equality Day marched quietly across most of our calendars. In 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as the date to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting all women in America the right to vote. Ancient history? Perhaps to some. To most of us, that date should remind us holidays and laws don’t create true equality; people’s thoughts and actions do.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ground Zero Blues

Old Twin Towers
On a recent trip to the Big Apple with my son to watch my Yankees mix it up with Boston, one of our stops included the World Trade Center, site of the 9/11 Memorial. It was dedicated on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (Sept. 11, 2011). I had visited Ground Zero a few times: before the attack, shortly after, and a couple years prior to the Memorial opening. And while what had happened there was horrific, I figured another visit would be no big deal. But what awaited me inside was literally haunting.
Last time I went, the place was walled off due to construction. I was able to look inside though from a perch along a sky-way between adjacent buildings and the site was a jumble; guys wearing hardhats and orange vests were operating heavy machines doing this and that, here and there. On this latest visit, the wooden walls were still up and the accompanying 9/11 Memorial Museum remained a work in progress. Still, the public was actively visiting the memorial grounds itself. So we got our tickets (they’re free) and waited with hundreds of others to enter.
As we stood in line, I gauged the mindset of folks around me. They seemed pleasant yet reflective. I imagined that like me, they were thinking about what happened at this place. I suppose a few also thought about why it happened.
Perhaps it was due to my anxiety of what might be inside but as we made our way along the roped off snaking line that kept switching back and forth I was reminded, rather annoyingly, of similar set ups for amusement park rides. Minutes later that image was replaced by something akin to airport security, complete with conveyor belts and x-ray machines to screen your stuff. It was a dark reminder of what happened a little over a decade on those 16 or so acres of ground. At the other side of the security checkpoint, as I fumbled to put back on my belt, a father/daughter duo was also piecing themselves together. From the look of the girl, she probably had been born around the time the twin towers came down. I wondered what she might be thinking about all this. Ancient history? Nothing at all?
A few minutes later we were inside. Dramatic doesn’t begin to describe the power of the memorial. Neither does reverent. Despite the horrific act of violence that happened there, the place held a peaceful beauty that caught me completely off guard. It looked like a park but felt like much more, from the immense twin memorial waterfall monuments called Reflecting Absence, to the scorched lone pear tree people were snapping pictures of, which I learned was the only living thing to survive the towers’ deadly collapse. All the other trees, a multitude of them, were newly planted.
Lone pear surviving tree
To say my visit was meaningful is an understatement. ‘Spiritual awareness’ is a closer description. ‘Ghostly encounter’ might be even closer to the mark. Until that visit, the jury has been out for me regarding the notion that spirits and specters roam the earth. Now it’s no longer out of the question because my heart and mind are fairly certain something other-worldly passed through me that day, in one specific spot I was standing and in one smallish area I walked through.
As my son and I were leaving, we passed the father/daughter pair from security. He was quizzing her. Father: "Now what is it that happened here?" Daughter: "A plane hit a building." Father (gently): “Two planes hit two buildings.”
And the Yankees lost.